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Practical tips to turn your customer service reps into extraordinary customer relations experts.

Many customer service training programs underestimate the need for soft-skills training such as listening and developing relationships. They often concentrate instead on hard skills, such as using a computer to access customer or product information. This can result in serious shortcomings.

Good customer service training involves a more balanced approach in which soft skills don’t get the short end of the stick.

Excellent customer service is about creating a truly unique and inviting experience for the customer — not delivering service platitudes.

A good customer service training program is based on the understanding that developing strong, lasting bonds with the customer is the only way to ensure continued business success. It is very similar to the process of forming and maintaining strong friendships.

It is important for trainers to have a good understanding of the factors involved in good customer service, in order to be able to effectively instill them in the customer service representatives (CSRs).

Here are some important soft skills that every CSR should have.

Smiling
First impressions are critical and there’s nothing more powerful than a smile to let the customer feel that she is very important to you. Smiling connects with people at a deep emotional level. Smiling also makes you sound friendlier and more approachable.

Training tip — Give your CSRs small mirrors that can be used for feedback and self-management during and after the training session. Periodically during the training program ask the CSR to look at himself to catch his various moods. The purpose is to reinforce his natural ability to smile rather than to force an artificial smile.

Listening
After a sincere smile, listening is the most powerful “human connection” device. It permits the service provider to fully understand the customer’s needs.

Training tip — The litmus test of good listening is being able to accurately understand someone who is talking about a subject that is emotionally upsetting to them.

By using prepared tapes that are purposely “politically incorrect,” challenge the CSR to report back what he heard compared with what was said.

As the learning progresses, introduce the CSR to various probing and clarifying techniques that encourage the development of “objective listening” and prepares him to interact with the most difficult customers, without getting negatively triggered.

Respect
Respect is a need at the heart of human existence. To respect a customer is to trigger deep motivation within that customer. Respect is a crucible, from which wonderful things can happen.

The respected customer may not consciously know why she feels good about you, or your products and services. The respected customer will more likely want to do business with you.

Training tip — Disrespect has to be unlearned and the ability to respect learned in its place. Most participants can develop an understanding of the devastating effects of anything that diminishes self-esteem through the following exercise.

Pre-prepared nasty statements, that have a ring of truth to them, are given to the participants. They are then asked to share how they would feel if someone said it about them. This exercise is most effective by having participants work in twos, while the facilitator coaches. Eventually, most participants get the message that it is important to “treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Another important other lesson is to “say and do things that will help people feel even better about themselves.” This is easily and quickly conveyed by having each participant write one or two positive qualities that every other participant probably has — no cynicism allowed. By the end of the exercise each participant will have received 20 to 40 positive comments about himself. It is an overwhelming experience and the power of the message is delivered without confusion: customers are people, just like you and me. It is relatively easy and painless to make your customers feel like you’re feeling now and as a consequence, create a friend for life.

Other soft skills are important to a CSR such as the ability to offer customized solutions to specific customer needs. But by far, the most important skill is learning how to end a customer service interaction.

Concluding the interaction
Through smiling, listening and respect, the CSR has shown the customer that he cares. Assuming responsibility for success is the last and most important way of proving it.

By leaving the customer with a number of ways that you can be reached in the event of a problem, and by monitoring the progress of any action or solution, the CSR creates a lasting positive impression; a feeling that the customer can count on him no matter what. It is the most convincing way of building long-term customer loyalty.

Training tip — Provide the CSR with a simple checklist, which encourages him to:

1. Leave the customer with a number of ways the CSR can be reached in case of an emergency, including his phone number, e-mail address or the names of other people who can help if the CSR is unavailable.

2. Internally monitor the progress of the action or solution — until it’s actually done.

3. Go back to the customer and ensure she is fully satisfied.

Soft-skills customer service training doesn’t have to be a big, costly production. In fact, shorter, better-designed customer service programs that weed out the non-essentials will result in the learner acquiring the skills faster and retaining them longer. Extra detail, although interesting, can confuse the core message of excellent customer service and inhibit the CSR’s ability to learn. So, shorter is better.

Post-training support is necessary to permanently instill the new learning.

A seminar plants the seeds of change; followup support is needed to ensure that new behaviour takes root and grows. With this in mind, consider using one-on-one e-mail coaching or toll-free telephone coaching as an integral part of your training program if person-to-person post-training support is not possible.

A customer will generally not respond well to a CSR who doesn’t relate to her as a human being. CSRs should have training that fully develops hard skills and soft skills.

J. Jacques Lupien is the president of Innovaction Consulting Inc., a firm which specializes in innovative training and development approaches such as the Fat-Free Skills Training program. He can be reached at: (416) 266-1945, (800) 876-7771, [email protected] or at www.fatfreetraining.com.

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